While hiking with my family, I kept seeing all these grids in the woods. there was order to the trees and the rocks (though human hands had stacked them), there was a structure that I loved. We wandered over a new bridge, which created a strict order over the wild swamp, but the sun played with the grid, too.
I have been staring out the window, seeing nothing but brown, brown, brown. Its winter and there is no snow. The sky can be a soaring blue, but it can all be a dismal gray that sits right on top of the trees and pushes down slightly.
I am embarrassed how long it took me to really see that cardinals. I mean, we greet them every day, and it’s so fun to spot the cardinal in the spruce tree — a plugged-in, glowing red hidden in a mass of droopy matte green. It always makes the heart beat a little faster.
But how long did I stare at photos of tropical birds, or sketch birds at the zoo? How did I miss the bird on my feeder, sorting through the seeds until it found the right ones?
Once I stitched him onto the cloth, my needle slowed to a stop. I couldn’t think of anything to stitch next — I could only see the cardinal. I will let him sit and get comfortable for a while, and see if anything else comes wandering by.
My little story cloth took a swim on Sunday, when we spent the day next to a mountain creek (the prettiest little creek that you ever did see!). At the time I was very interested in my lunch, when I saw this little bit of fabric tumbling past me in the breeze. I leapt after it, but it moved quickly down to the water and floated on top. I thought it would stop there, since it wasn’t blowing in the wind… but I forgot about the current. The swift current.
It didn’t take me too long to catch the adventuring story cloth, and I didn’t get too wet fishing it out. But I spent a while thinking about the current after that. I had been thinking about electrical currents — the metaphorical charge you feel when an idea flashes through your brain. And also literal currents, since my kids spent the previous day wiring a robo-car with my husband. But now there is a new kind of current to think about — the river current!
What is pulling us? What are the forces that surround us?
When we commit a chunk of money to a vacation, we hope that we will come out of it with some good memories and awakened interests and family connection. I mean, it’s a lot of money. And a lot of work to plan, pack and carry out. So we want some return on our investment, right? We want to have fun, dammit!
But how? What’s fun for a grown man and also fun for a four-year-old?
Our vacation strategy was inspired by Dr. Brene Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting. She writes about her experience trying to find out what felt like “play” to everyone in her family — which can involve some detective work. Once Dr. Brown had her info, she drew Venn diagram to find the overlaps.
Taking a page from Brown’s book, we’ve tried to identify what is play for all of us, and where our play lists overlap. It’s not a big cross section. Our kids are fast and reckless in crowded museums, slow and aimless in wide open spaces. The list of group activities that satisfy me, my husband, a 4- and a 7-year-old is short. But that’s okay — helpful, even. We can fix those activities as the center of our vacation planning.
Beach-combing can keep all of us happy for a long while. When the little one loses interest, he can play in the water or dig or run or snack. Being in calm coves helps make it easier to trust him not to get knocked over by a wave, plus we all love finding a secret place out in the wilds. A warm day at the beach is so lovely, but we also spent a wet and cold week at the beach in the temperate rainforests of Washington State. Long underwear and rain gear for all. We spent that week hunting for agates, jasper and other rocks on the beaches, then warming up by the wood stove while we sorted all the treasures. And washed the treasures and polished the treasures and read about the treasures…
I have also realized that I need to separate being out in nature from hiking. Hiking with kids kind of makes me miserable. I feel stuck in the slow lane while I just want to move forward. And something about trails makes kid’s shoes turn to iron weights. Three steps in and they are tired. So, we aim to find a place where we all want to linger — a mountain stream is my favorite. The kids play in the water, and my husband and I are happy to join in for a bit. Then we can read, picnic, whittle, talk or just lie on warm rocks.
Also on our short list of fun-for-all activities is buffets (specifically breakfast or an Indian buffet) since everyone gets exactly what they want and the feel of abundance is a balm to the limits and constant compromise that come with travel. You want to eat a bowl of strawberries for breakfast? Go ahead, kid.
For a midwinter weekend getaway, we have a three-year-and-counting family tradition of going to a suite hotel upstate with an indoor pool, large breakfast buffet, and evening cocktail and snack hour. We eat junk food, watch TV and leave the hotel once a day to take a walk. We indulge and lounge and play and rest. It’s not exotic or expensive (off-season rates!), but it does feel decadent – for everyone.
Originally published in Dirt Magazine, Jan/Feb 2019. Updated May 2019